Kwame Leo Lillard: A Living Libation for Liberation

By jeff obafemi carr

The spirit who occupied the Earth Suit recognized by all as the great Kwame Leo Lillard has now transitioned into The Ancestral Realm. When I first heard the news, I immediately carried a glass of water to my front yard, poured some out, and called his name aloud. This is the ancient ritual of pouring Libations. The water represents those on this side of life; We pour into the earth that represents what becomes of our physical shells once we no longer need them to hold who we truly are.

The first time many of us ever witnessed the Pouring of Libations was from the hands of Baba (“Father”) Kwame Leo Lillard. Sure, we’d seen it without seeing it, as is the case when the brothers on the corner break the seal on a fifth and pour a little off the top “for the ones who ain’t here.” Kwame taught us that this ritual survived chattel slavery, demonstrating the power of acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; that when we walk into rooms, we are never alone. We are one with all the life that preceded—and therefore produced—us.

Every Sunday at The Infinity Fellowship, we open our Inter-Spiritual service by acknowledging our common Divine Source, perceived by many names, yet known by one energy. Next, we pour Libations. Libation isn’t just a moment of remembrance and acknowledgment. It’s a powerful ritual of rejuvenation, reconciliation, and restoration; a completion of the Circle of Life that gives us strength in contemplation.

We are, after all, seeds planted and watered by The Ancestors.

As we are made stronger by Baba Kwame’s crossing over, we now have a huge space to fill in this world we call “reality;” a world that needs more beings cast from the arguably broken mold of Kwame Leo Lillard.

Over the coming days, there will be countless tributes written, hundreds of pictures posted, and dozens of selfies added to social media profiles by everyone whose path he crossed on this side of The Great Mystery. As is human nature, we all will swell our chests to showcase how well we knew him; how we knew him better than others; how we were more special because we walked with, talked with, worked with, and learned from this esteemed Elder.

This is also the time of a cosmic conjunction of planets and the Winter Solstice. Kwame passed just in time for the mark of the return of the longest days and the shortest periods of night; a time some internet spiritualists predicted people would gain superpowers that would save them from the struggles of everyday living. Baba Kwame didn’t need to wait for a time like this, because his superpower manifested long before many of us were even born:

He possessed the unique power of making us all feel special. Unique. Seen.

Kwame Leo Lillard was—and is—a Living Libation.

When I was a student leader at Tennessee State University, Kwame Leo Lillard, who came to Nashville and made his name on the ground in the historic Nashville Sit-In Movement, showed up on campus and made his voice known to administrators, community voices, and politicians. When we had to shut down the University—30 years ago this year—he brought the Sit-In heroes from the 1960s to our cause, along with their endorsement and love. We won a victory that produced virtually a brand new campus for Tennessee State University. 

This is what Elders do to support the next generation.

Kwame’s work didn’t stop there, though. In 1983, he pulled together a small group of culturally aware people and launched the African-American Cultural Alliance, an institution that still stands, several decades later. From Kwame’s AACA was birthed:

  • The Historic Nashville African Street Festival. A gem in the crown of Nashville’s cultural attractiveness, this festival began on the campus of TSU, and has grown to be an event that draws thousands of people to North Nashville to dance to the beat of drums, buy cultural arts and clothing, and experience safe places for families of all hues to celebrate true diversity and economic empowerment.
  • The Commemoration of The United States Colored Troops. In mid-December, come rain, shine, snow, or winds, the AACA gathers at the gravesite of Black Union Soldiers slain in their fight for freedom in the only institution that gave them the capacity to do so. For years, local legends like Queen Mother Zulee Ursurey made their way to this community ritual to pay respects and to pass their wisdom on to the young.
  • The First Celebrations of Kwanzaa. Before the holiday took root in the mainstream; Before its inevitable commercialization; Before the greeting card lines, Kwanzaa kits, and an array of available stock photos in design programs, the African American Cultural Alliance convened a small group of Afrocentric woke folks in the chilly basement of the LRC building at Meharry Medical College. It was, after all, what Kwanzaa was initially imagined to be: a defiant affirmation of cultural principles designed to create generational success and empowerment. The events cost nothing, gifts were hand-made, and potlucks produced the physical food that complemented the spiritual. 

In remembering the works of Kwame Leo Lillard, it is easy to assume that everything he touched turned to gold—and one some levels that is the case: The African Street Festival is now, after over four decades of existence, one of the premier Fall events of the entire Southeast region. The remembrance of our Civil War Vets has continued  unbroken, contributing to the salvation of hallowed ground like Ft. Negley. These days, Kwanzaa has become a holiday celebrated by many groups and organizations beyond the AACA, including churches, nonprofits, businesses, and entrepreneurs (even the city of Nashville lights up the bridge in the Red, Black and Green).

As we reflect on the pot of gold at the end of a powerful cultural rainbow in our city, we must never forget that the purest gold is forged in the hottest fire.

Kwame Leo Lillard was that fire, and fire isn’t afraid to burn.

I think about the late, great Ancestor, Rep. John Lewis, a contemporary of Baba Kwame, when I ponder how to best remember him. Upon Congressman Lewis’ transition, the internet was abuzz with postings of him dancing in celebration, of reminders for all of us to get into “good trouble.” For some reason, that’s easier to think about than Bloody Sunday, or seeing him dragged off bar stools and being beaten for simply demanding to be seen as a human being.

In remembering Baba Kwame, we must also embrace the elements that make us uncomfortable, for those are the elements that gave him the dogged strength to pour back into us all. 

Remember the Kwame Leo Lillard that stood, as a young man, toe-to-toe with racists and never backed down in word or in action, whether it was at lunch counters or in the doorways of segregated swimming pools in Nashville.

Remember the Kwame Leo Lillard who was elected to the Metro Council in the early 1990’s and fought against gentrification and for the rights of his constituents, often citing the history of the city’s brilliant move of consolidating Metro Nashville Government to prevent Nashville from becoming a “Black Mecca.” Read an excellent tweet by Professor Sekou Franklin that offers Kwame’s own words.

Remember the Kwame Leo Lillard who had the gall to wear a Dashiki in Council Chambers; who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in a show of solidarity for the rights of the oppressed—long before the next generation took a knee; who favored the people over the special interests who fill the financial coffers of elected officials.

Remember the Kwame Leo Lillard who only danced when he heard some spirit-felt music, and only let loose his infectious laugh when something was truly funny. 

Finally, let us remember the Kwame Leo Lillard who poured into the next generation of activists, advocates, and institution-builders; For this was his greatest gift to the world. 

This is what made him an esteemed Elder.

Kwame Leo Lillard lived through more pure Hell that many of us may ever experience in our lifetimes here; And yet, he remained positive, determined, empowered, supportive, strong, and—perhaps most importantly—unbroken, unbought, and unbossed. People didn’t always like Baba Kwame, and that was completely okay with him. He modeled to us that it is far more important to be respected than liked. He reminded us of the words of Alice Walker, “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”

From the time I was barely out of my teens, and throughout my adult life, this man showed up for me in every conceivable way. When I published The Third Eye Newspaper, he was one of the first subscribers. When I started the Amun Ra Theatre, he doled out infrastructure advice from the AACA office I haunted just down the hallway from ours. When The Infinity Fellowship was birthed, he came in on Sundays and dragged kids to the stage on makeshift stools to talk them through reenactments of the Nashville Sit-In Movement. 

Up to his last days, he was still pouring back into people. The greatest lesson I learned from him was that activism should produce institutions that have generational impact on our communities. 

Baba Kwame was about that Legacy life.  

I do not own the memory of Baba Kwame Leo Lillard. None of us does. If you feel like you do, then his superpower worked on you, too. What remains for us is to stand even taller in this world, because we now rest on some mighty shoulders. 

As we now collectively swell the river that carries him, unconquered, into The Greatest Mystery, with the calabash of our tears, let us embrace him for what he truly was, is, and ever shall be:

Our Living Libation.

Rest well, Baba. Your seeds will take it from here.

Amen. Amin. Hotep. Shalom. Namaste’. Ashe’.

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